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Haig, Douglas (1861–1928)

HAIG, DOUGLAS (1861–1928)


Commander of the British army that beat the Germans on the western front from 1916 to 1918.

Douglas Haig established a reputation as a competent staff officer in the small prewar British professional army. He served with some distinction in campaigns in the Sudan (1897–1898) and South Africa (1899–1902) before taking on a series of administrative, organizational, and training appointments in Britain and India. In these he played a major role in shaping the army that would take the field in 1914. Haig was studious and hard working, but he also fulfilled other requirements of the successful Edwardian officer, playing polo to a high level and engaging in the politics of a fiercely hierarchic organization that still placed a heavy emphasis on patronage.

At the outbreak of World War I, Haig went to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). For the first two years of the war, he served as a subordinate to the British commander in chief on the western front, Sir John French, whom he replaced at the end of 1915. Under Haig's command over the next three years, the British army on the western front fought four great campaigns. In 1916 and 1917 it attacked the Germans on the Somme and around Ypres. In both cases, the British suffered very heavy casualties while making only limited territorial gains. Neither campaign succeeded in breaking through the German lines in the way Haig hoped. Both succeeded, however, in killing large numbers of Germans as well as Britons—an attritional effect that was not Haig's primary aim but that did bring the end of the war closer. In spring 1918, the British faced a major German offensive for the first time since 1914. Unused to defensive operations, faced with new German tactics and with a recently extended front, parts of the British line rapidly collapsed. In the subsequent defensive battle, Haig acquitted himself well, keeping his head, not allowing the Germans to take the decisive objectives and maintaining the morale of his men with an "Order of the Day" on 11 April 1918 that was long remembered for its stirring words. With the German attack halted, the Allies moved to their own offensive in the summer of 1918. In the last months of World War I, Haig's forces performed very creditably, taking the main part in driving back the German army and forcing its commanders to ask their government to make peace.

In the years after the war, Haig achieved celebrity as a campaigner for British veterans. He became the figurehead of the newly formed British Legion, the most influential British veterans' group. On his death (29 January 1928) he was given a state funeral, and huge crowds lined the streets of London and Edinburgh to bid him farewell; towns across Britain held services of remembrance for him. It was only after his death, particularly in the 1960s, he became demonized in British popular culture.

Historical controversy over Haig centers on his personality, his strategy, and the losses suffered by his armies. The relevance of a critique based on modern historians' distaste for or incomprehension of Edwardian attitudes is not clear. Generalship is not a beauty contest. His strategic insight, that the British should concentrate their effort against their principal opponent—the German army on the western front—is hard to fault. If Britain wished to maintain its prewar existence, it had little choice except to commit to heavy fighting in France and Flanders. Haig is open to criticism for the length of time it took him to appreciate the implications of the tactical and technological context in which he fought. By aiming at decisive breakthroughs, rather than confining himself to the destruction of the enemy's forces, it could be argued that he inflicted unnecessary losses on his own men. Proper assessment of this criticism has been confused by an understandable horror at the sheer number of casualties and the absence of any comparable event in Britain's military history.

Haig's significance for Europe was that he helped to prevent the first German bid for hegemony in the twentieth century. This was also his key significance for Britain in geostrategic terms. In cultural and historical terms, it was perhaps more significant that he commanded the country's largest military force on the only occasion in which it confronted the main strength of a great-power opponent in a land war. In Britain in the early twenty-first century, Haig is remembered principally for the heavy casualties that were the inevitable result, rather than the victory he helped to achieve.

See alsoArmies; Warfare; World War I.


Prior, Robin, and Trevor Wilson. Passchendaele: The Untold Story. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1996. A balanced assessment of British performance in the battle.

Sheffield, Gary. Forgotten Victory: The First World War, Myths and Realities. London, 2001. The most easily accessible history of Britain's part in World War I.

Travers, Tim. The Killing Ground: The British Army, the Western Front, and the Emergence of Modern Warfare, 1900–1918. London, 1987. A more critical view of Haig's performance.

Todman, Daniel. The Great War: Myth and Memory. London, 2005. An exploration of the development of British shared beliefs about World War I from 1918 to the early twenty-first century.

Daniel Todman

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